Tom Karen obituary

Designer of colourful, memorable products of the 1960s and 70s such as Marble Run and the Raleigh Chopper

Tom Karen, one of Britain’s most original industrial designers, who has died aged 96, will be remembered for colourful, headline-stealing products that caught the spirit of their age, including the Raleigh Chopper, the Bond Bug, Marble Run and the Reliant Scimitar GTE. In Karen’s case, the age was the fecund 1960s propelled optimistically into the economically challenged 70s, the decade, in the popular imagination, that style forgot.

The radical Chopper children’s bike, launched in 1969, rescued Raleigh from financial disaster. Now any 10-year-old could ride the cul-de-sacs of Britain like Peter Fonda astride his Easy Rider “Captain America” Harley-Davidson. With its high-set handlebars, outsize rear wheel, wedge-shaped frame, bright colours – Golden Yellow, Flamboyant Green and Brilliant Orange – long padded backrest saddle, central gear lever, dummy disc brake and motorcycle-style stand, it represented a world removed from that of staid sit-up-and-beg postwar children’s bikes. Raleigh’s chief international designer, Alan Oakley, also claimed credit for its design, having sketched an early image of the bike on a flight home from a research trip to the US.

The Bond Bug, an eye-catching three-wheeler car available in any colour as long as it was bright orange, was, Karen liked to say, a “Ferrari for 16-year-olds”. A Bug owner needed only a motorcycle licence to power (29bhp) this wedge-shaped resin rocket (75mph) along Britain’s Cortina-crowded main roads. The Kings Road, Chelsea in London was, perhaps, the Bug’s spiritual home, one advert for the car depicting a fashionable young architect stowing a cardboard tube of drawings into the fibreglass cabin, another a mini-skirted model looking laconically cool.

A Raleigh Chopper children’s bike at Tom Karen’s home in Cambridge.
A Raleigh Chopper children’s bike at Tom Karen’s home in Cambridge. Photograph: The Guardian

Where the Chopper and the Bug were, at heart, toys for children and young adults, the trendsetting Reliant Scimitar GTE of 1968 was a revolutionary sporting estate car, highly resolved in terms of Karen’s subtly curved, upswept styling, and with performance to match its innovative good looks. Sales were boosted in 1970 when the Queen and Prince Philip gave Princess Anne an air force blue GTE for her 20th birthday. Philip had driven a one-off Triplex glass-roofed Reliant Scimitar, an earlier model redesigned as a promotional special by Karen, between 1965 and 1967, and had been greatly impressed.

These three highly individualistic designs were shaped when Karen was managing director and chief designer of Ogle Design, a company founded in Letchworth by David Ogle in 1954. Eight years later, Ogle crashed at speed and was killed at the wheel of one of his fibreglass Mini-based sports cars. Karen was offered his job, and stayed with the company for 37 years.

Throughout this time, free-spirited yet practical, unexpected and downright maverick designs poured from the studio. These included the bestselling TR130 Bush radio, the Anadol (Turkey’s first indigenous car), the perennially popular Marble Run construction game (manufactured by Kiddicraft), lorry cabs for Leyland, experimental aircraft interiors, car crash test dummies, a low-lying GT caravan that proved too futuristic to sell, Luke Skywalker’s Star Wars Landspeeder (a heavily disguised Bond Bug), a bespoke Aston-Martin DBS V8 with a swept-up, brushed stainless steel tail boasting 22 brake lights - the harder the driver braked, the more lights shone – a styling exercise for a new Routemaster bus for London Transport long before the “Boris Bus”. There was also a bullet-proof Range Rover Popemobile for John Paul II’s 1982 visit to nine British cities and the Reliant Robin, a three-wheeler that was the butt of comedians’ increasingly tired jokes.

A 1973 Bond Bug, designed by Tom Karen, on display at the Bubblecar Museum in Cranwell, Lincolnshire.
A 1973 Bond Bug, designed by Tom Karen, on display at the Bubblecar Museum in Cranwell, Lincolnshire. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

Born Thomas Kohn in Vienna, he was brought up in Brno, now in the Czech Republic. His Czech father, Pavel, was a building contractor and his mother, Margaret, was a keen amateur pilot (and the daughter of the Hungarian portrait painter Arthur von Ferraris). A family-owned brickworks brought them comfortable wealth. Pavel drove a Bugatti and bought a Baby Bugatti, a half-scale Type 35 racer with an electric motor, for Tom and his brother. Tom recalled a big house with 17 servants, a swimming pool, tennis court and toys, among them a Meccano set and a mesmerising scale model of a Westland Lysander aircraft brought home from London by his parents.

In March 1939, the family fled Czechoslovakia. The Germans were about to march into the newly annexed country. While neither of his parents was religious, his father had Jewish ancestry. Through contacts in the Czech air force, Pavel escaped to Britain through Poland and Sweden. Margaret and the boys followed via a circuitous route through Belgium, southern France, Spain and Portugal. They sailed from Lisbon to Bristol in 1942 and, without money, to a small house with an outside lavatory.

Pope John Paul II in his bullet-proof Range Rover popemobile, designed by Tom Karen, at Wembley Stadium, 1982.
Pope John Paul II in his bullet-proof Range Rover popemobile, designed by Tom Karen, at Wembley Stadium, 1982. Photograph: PA

Tom went to Loughborough College of Technology, Leicestershire, to study aeronautical engineering, and then on to work in Luton for Hunting Percival during the development of the aviation company’s piston engine Proctor and jet Provost military trainers. After a period of illness, first pneumonia, then colitis, he began taking art evening classes, and drawing aviation-themed cartoons. Around the same time, in 1948, he changed his surname to Karen and became a British citizen.

Through his drawing, he became a technical illustrator at the Air Registration Board at Croydon airport in London. In 1954, his family received compensation for their lost assets, and the following year he joined the rigorous industrial design course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. This led to design roles at Ford, Hotpoint and Philips before Karen joined Ogle in 1962. He was made chairman in 1984.

After retiring in 1999, Karen moved to Cambridge, where he continued to design, invent and make toys. His house was a delightful meeting of cabinet of curiosities, workshop and studio. The toy birds he could spirit in minutes from strips of wire and folds of paper or papier-mâché were, in part, echoes of his childhood home in Brno. There, he had much enjoyed the company of a tame jackdaw, Kako, who flew around the house with him and perched on his pillow at night.

He also found time to write two books, Ogle & The Bug (2010) and a biography, Toymaker (2020). He was appointed OBE in 2019.

Karen married Nicole Lagesse in 1959. They divorced in 1994. He is survived by his children, Nicolas, Josephine, Max and Eugenie, and seven grandchildren.

• Tom Karen (Thomas Joseph Derrick Paul Kohn), industrial designer, born 20 March 1926; died 31 December 2022

• This article was amended on 23 January 2023. An earlier version said that Bond Bug owners only needed a motorcycle-plus-sidecar licence. At that time a motorcycle licence would suffice to drive a Bond Bug – and, in fact, would allow you to also drive a motorcycle-plus-sidecar.


Jonathan Glancey

The GuardianTramp

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